The word photography comes from two Greek words: photos and graphos, which mean light and writing. So photography literally means ‘writing with light’. A good photographer is always aware of their light source no matter what camera they are using, because this will determine what kind of picture you’re taking. There may be some instances when you have taken a photo of someone and accidentally ended up with a silhouette, and thought “Hmmm, that actually works”.
Silhouettes are a good way to add some mystery or drama to your photos. I personally like taking photographs of silhouettes because of the way they can enhance the shapes of different objects, such as leaves or buildings. It adds a bit of abstractness to your photographs, which is a good break from the norm, especially if you’re the type of person who uses grid-like social media accounts like Instagram.
The general rule of thumb when taking photos of silhouettes is to place your subject directly in front of your light source — or as they say in film terms, “against the light” — so they are backlit. The reason for this is that your subject blocks the light before it reaches your camera sensor, creating an outline.
Here are some tips to help you capture silhouettes and subjects in shadow:
1. Choose a subject with an interesting shape
Look at a particular shape and imagine what it would look like without any of its details. I love taking photos of trees, because the branches and leaves always create really interesting patterns to work with.
2. Remember to turn off your flash
When working with silhouettes, you’re trying to capture the lack of illumination. So remember to turn off your flash, and to block any frontal light sources that will show details of your subject.
3. Use the sun!
This may be simple, but it’s true. Sunsets make for great backgrounds behind silhouettes because they add texture to a blank subject.
4. Be creative
Neon signs and store billboards also make for really interesting shots. Don’t be afraid to use any light source that’s around you.
5. When using a smartphone
When using a smartphone, silhouettes can be captured by selecting the brightest part of your frame as the focal point, so that the camera adjusts itself to suit these highlights and leaves the darkest areas in shadow.
6. When using a DSLR
Make sure to lower your shutter speed and close your aperture when you’re shooting. You’re actually more likely to get the best silhouettes when using AUTO mode.
7. Play around with your photograph using editing programs
The beauty of silhouette shots is the abstractness of the subject. I personally feel like this gives you more flexibility to play around with different filters and colour settings during post-production. Don’t be afraid to increase the contrast and sharpness while you’re editing, because this really brings out the shape of your subject.